The ultimate guide to removing make-up and cleansing your skin

Written by Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

Taking time to clean your face properlyis a key building block for great skin, butwhat’s the most effective technique?

Whether you’re a once-a-week double cleanser, somebody who dedicates three stages of their 12-step Korean-inspired skincare routine to cleansing or – like one Stylist contributor who will remain nameless – you use shower gel to wash away the day (a method that makes our entire beauty team visibly wince), our approaches to cleansing are seemingly as personal as our coffee orders. But it’s the one step that, no matter how basic it appears, most people aren’t doing correctly, therefore jeopardising their whole routine.

“There are so many mistakes people make when it comes to cleansing,” says skincare expert and facialist Dija Ayodele. “Using the incorrect product for their skin type is the most common, but I see a lot of people who don’t understand how important cleansing is so they don’t invest in decent products.” 

After all, there’s no point layering on multiple all-singing, all-dancing serums, creams, moisturisers and acids if the base canvas is still covered in the day’s muck. But why isn’t a quick wipe with a flannel enough? 

Fundamentally, facial cleansers are made with surfactants, a type of detergent that pulls make-up and dirt away from skin so it can be easily rinsed away. When you consider the products on your face right now – things like stubborn SPF and long-wearing foundation – along with the environmental factors skin is constantly exposed to throughout the day, plus excess oil production and dead skin cells, there’s a lot to dissolve by the time bedtime rolls around. 

Even if you don’t wear make-up, things like pollution, free radicals and city grime affect skin too, which means the rules of cleansing really do apply to everybody. 

However, with so much choice comes confusion – what formula is best for your skin type? Should you double cleanse? Is using micellar water enough? Do you massage right up into your hairline? Do you check the temperature of the water before you rinse? And do you actually give your cleanser enough time to do its job? 

It’s considering things like this that can take your cleansing game up a notch, leaving your skin perfectly primed for the next step. It helps to think of cleansing as a time for a little mindful self-care; done properly it can be one of the most enjoyable parts of an evening routine. Read on to discover the secrets to getting the best and most rigorous cleanse, every single day. No shower gel in sight. 

How to choose the right cleanser for your skin type

Firstly, and most importantly, you need to make sure the cleanser you’re using is actually suitable for your skin type. “I tend to suggest using non-foaming, fragrance-free gel or cream cleansers for dry, dehydrated and sensitive skin types,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. “Acne-prone skin types should avoid any oil-based formulas, while oily skins tend to tolerate foaming cleansers well. They’re typically quite drying, which can make skin feel parched, tight and uncomfortable, but they can be helpful when it comes to reducing grease.”

Is double cleansing really necessary?

Over the past few years, the idea of double cleansing – using two different cleansers for different purposes one after the other – has come to the fore. Most experts agree that cleansing once in the morning is enough, but a double cleanse is necessary in the evening if you’ve been wearing sunscreen and make-up or even if you’ve just been outside. “You’d be surprised at the amount of dirt and grime that can sit on skin,” says Ayodele. Just because it’s not necessarily visible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

What’s the difference between make-up remover and cleanser?

There’s the conversation around make-up removers versus traditional cleansers to consider, because (and we hate to be the ones to break it to you) they’re entirely different things and it’s not enough to just use one or the other. “Make-up remover is intended to remove things like foundation, concealer and eyeshadow from the surface of the skin, while cleansers clean the skin itself, cutting through dirt, sweat, sebum, dead skin cells and pollution,” explains Kluk.

That’s why it’s worth investing in two separate products, but you need to make sure the formulas you’re combining actually work together and suit your skin type (see our handy pairings to the right). Micellar water also works as a good make-up remover when you’re feeling lazy – it’s much better for the environment and your skin than wipes and it’s suitable for all skin types. It works a bit like a magnet, attracting impurities away from the epidermis without drying it out. It’s best used on a (reusable) cotton pad and followed up with a proper cleanser. 

The best cleansers for your skin type

  • Best cleansers for dry skin

    Add a splash of water to Eve Lom’s Gel Balm Cleanser, £45, and it’ll transform into a milky balm that melts make-up. Pat skin dry and then massage in CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, £9.50, enriched with moisturising hyaluronic acid. 

  • Best cleansers for sensitive skin

    Medik8 Gentle Cleanse, £18, is suitable for even the most sensitive skin, light and infused with glycerin to add moisture. Use the ultra-gentle La Roche-Posay Toleriane Derma-Cleanser, £12.50, as a second step to help soothe irritation.

  • Best cleansers for oily skin

    Perfect for acne and blemish-prone skin, Oskia’s Renaissance Cleansing Gel, £33, cuts through make-up while helping to reduce inflammation. Use Dermalogica Clearing Skin Wash, £36, afterwards, formulated with exfoliating salicylic acid. 

The best temperature for washing your face

Something we’re all guilty of is dismissing the little things that actually add up to become a more thorough cleanse. Things that you probably don’t think matter that much, like the temperature of the water. Ideally it should be lukewarm – around 37°C – for the most pleasant and effective cleanse. “Everybody has their happy medium, but too hot may irritate and dry out your skin and too cold doesn’t remove oil and dirt as well,” says Kluk. This means it’s actually best to wash your face before you get in the shower so that you’re in control of the temperature.

Should you cleanse up to your hair line?

 It’s also important to cleanse right up to your hairline because it can help prevent breakouts in that area. “Hairline spots are mostly caused when make-up is blended all the way up there but isn’t removed properly,” explains Ayodele. “They’re also more common now thanks to the general fascination I see among some people with ‘laying down edges’ using hair gel.” 

Is facial massage a good idea?

“Massaging cleanser well into the skin can help to emulsify all the grease and provide a more thorough cleanse,” says Kluk. Ayodele agrees, adding that you’re doing your skin a disservice if you don’t incorporate massage of some description into your skincare routine.

“Facial massage helps to move waste and toxins to the lymph nodes, which ultimately leaves you with more radiant skin,” she explains. The increased blood flow also brings more oxygen and nutrients to the skin, which facial tools can help with – Disciple’s Firm Face Gua Sha, £25, works wonders used in sweeping motions, while the Sarah Chapman Facialift massager, £30, mimics the fast tapping and pinching motions used in her signature facial.

The best acid cleansers for all skin types

Using an acid-based cleanser two or three times a week helps slough away dead cells leaving skin looking brighter and clearer, but make sure you’re not leaving it on for longer than a couple of minutes. “I normally brush my teeth while I wait; it’s like an inbuilt timer,” says Ayodele.

To help clear blemishes, try Caudalie Vinopure Purifying Gel Cleanser, £16; to brighten, Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Citrus Brightening Cleanser, £33, will do the job; and if you want to help smooth skin, incorporate MZ Skin Cleanse & Clarify Dual Action AHA Cleanser & Mask, £58, into your routine. 

How long should it take to wash your face properly?

The time you take out of your day is also important; you should set aside around three minutes for cleansing every evening. “It takes one minute to remove the day’s grime and another two minutes to actually clean the skin,” says Ayodele. “You need to take time to massage the cleanser into your skin, taking it down to the base of your neck before rinsing off.” Use a flannel or a muslin cloth to gently remove the cleanser and then pat your face dry with a clean towel – never rub as it can aggravate your skin.

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